The Bible: Leviticus

I had a road trip recently, so I checked out the book-on-tape version of Leviticus and am quite glad I did so, because, wow, would I have bogged down in this if I had tried to read it. It is pretty much a combination how-to manual for sacrifices and a law-book combined.

Chapters 1 – 9 cover sacrifices. All the sacrifices. There are burnt offerings and grain offerings and incense. There are sacrifices to remove sin, to please the Me, and to make requests. There are all the different animals that can be used (although only those without blemish!) depending on intent and income. And grains and oils. (No yeast. Yeast is bad for sacrifices. God is quite repetitive and adamant on the topic of yeast.)

And then there are the ways in which the sacrifice is to be performed by the priests, and what is to be burned entirely (to make an aroma pleasing to Me) and what can remain to be eaten, and who can eat it and where they can eat it.

(I’ll address Chapter 10 below.)

Chapters 11 – 17 list the many (many, many) reasons for needing to make a sacrifice. There are the many holy days that require celebrating over many days and many sacrifices. And then there are the many ways in which a person naturally becomes unclean (having a rash, women having their period, men having a wet dream, anyone having sex, eating something unclean, touching a dead body, touching something that has touched something unclean, a leader or priest in power becoming unclean, etc.)

Listening to this in the car with the modern translation by the American Bible Society, I was really struck by how much God comes across as a picky kid listing all the things that disgust him. (Bodies. Bodies disgust him. And all the things they do. Age and blemishes and sex and reproduction.) But there’s also the sense that he wants to keep the sacrifices coming on a regular basis, so you’d better keep getting unclean and needing to make regular sacrifices. But don’t worry if you’re not getting unclean often enough: there are still all the holidays and regular sacrifices!

Chapters 18 – 27 still talk some about sacrifices, but focus more on just rules rather than shilling for sacrifices. The rules are many and varied but there’s a large focus on how selling property and slaves works. (It works, incidentally, differently for Israelites than for foreigners, and differently for Levites than for any of the other Israelites, and is all structured around a seven-year cycle, at the end of which purchases of land and people largely disappear and ownership reverts.)

Anyway, Chapter 10 is the only part of this book that involves plot and characters. God once more demonstrates questionable behavior: The high priest Aaron has four sons who are also priests. Two of them manage to burn incense in a manner displeasing to God, so God kills them. Since they were killed for displeasing God, their bodies got dragged out of camp and their father and brothers told they weren’t allowed to mourn for them. Because those guys burned incense incorrectly.*

And finally, I can’t review Leviticus without at least acknowledging the two infamous Leviticus verses:

18:22 You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.

20:13 If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them.

These were so embedded in the lists of things that deserve death and/or exile that they lost some of their power, especially as the incorrect usage of incense apparently also deserved death. I think if I were an orthodox Jew who kept strictly kosher, I would need to do some soul searching on these strictures, but I’m not. I agree with the rules against incest** and bestiality, but I come to that agreement from a different motive than just differentiating myself from the Hitites et al (as in chapter 18) or avoiding a stoning (as in chapter 20). I don’t agree with the rule against homosexuality and because I don’t agree with God’s reasons as stated here, I see no reason to not disagree with the rules. It did occur to me for the first time, though, that it’s a very gender-specific law. God has plenty of issues with women and menstruation and childbirth (women must spend about a quarter of their lives “unclean”), but there’s nothing saying they shouldn’t have sex with one another.

Summary: How and why to perform sacrifices. How and for how much, to sell property and people.

Moral: Obedience. Blind obedience or else you will die a horrible death. Wowza.


* Admittedly, I kind of assume that the historical basis is that the two priests somehow managed to set their fancy robes on fire while burning the incense.

** Nearly the entirety of Chapter 18 consists of the different forms of incest that are now unlawful. Many of these forms, I recognize as being applauded in Genesis. Hopefully this means that going forward, there will be less incest. Here’s hoping.

Next up: Numbers

3 comments on “The Bible: Leviticus

  1. Anna says:

    So, I have a thought about this, and it is still kind of fuzzy, but I’m going to try communicate it here. At this point in the Bible, just about every depicted society has sort of a free-for-all, might-makes-right approach, right? (I’m not convinced this is historically accurate, but it certainly seems like how the Bible portrays it.) If you have that kind of society, and really have only ever had that kind of society, but you wanted to create a more structured type, with a sense of morality, wouldn’t you need to establish a ton of rules, down to really minute details, since no one has been used to even thinking in those terms before? And, you’d really have to keep drilling those rules into people’s heads because they’d never lived such a way before.

    Since this also follows Exodus, it really is kind of the equivalent of their Constitution and Bill of Rights for their brand new society.

    • Rebecca says:

      It really is a constitution / bill of rights for this society. It’s not clear to me how distinct it is from any other societies’ rules, though. There’s not much told about how other societies work and what is told is very much biased in one way or another. But there are certainly large societies at this point (Egypt certainly) that have some sort of monetary, judicial, and executive system in place. But yeah, the Israelites at this point don’t seem to have their own social structure and rules in place, so this book really could have been quite transformative, even if I consider it heavily oriented towards animal sacrifices.

  2. Eduardo says:

    If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and fololw me. (Matthew 16:24) People who come to Jesus are all different, they all have different ways in which they need to deny themselves, different crosses to bear.Yes, this is one issue where the Bible is out of step with a large number of people in the modern world. Personally I’m convinced that the Bible is God’s word and it is right, and if what the Bible says doesn’t chime in with my own opinions, it’s my opinions that are wrong!

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